Science & Health

DNA Confirms Amazing Australian Isle Insect Not Extinct After All

When black rats invaded Lord Howe Island after the 1918 wreck of the steamship Makambo, they wiped out numerous native species on the small Australian isle in the Tasman Sea including a big, flightless insect that resembled a stick.

But the Lord Howe Island stick insect, once declared extinct, still lives.

Scientists said on Thursday DNA analysis of museum specimens of the bug and a similar-looking one from an inhospitable volcanic outcrop called Ball’s Pyramid 14 miles (23 km) away confirmed they are the same species. The finding could help pave the way for its reintroduction in the coming years.

“The Lord Howe Island stick insect has become emblematic of the fragility of island ecosystems. Unlike most stories involving extinction, this one gives us a unique second chance,” said evolutionary biologist Alexander Mikheyev of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University in Japan.

The glossy-black insect that grow up to six inches (15 cm) in length is nicknamed the “land lobster.” Other stick insects are found around the world, so named because their appearance lets them blend in with trees and bushes to evade predators.

As adults, the wingless Lord Howe Island stick insects shelter in trees during daytime and come out at night to eat shrubbery. The bright-green babies are active during daytime.

By about 1930, they had vanished on Lord Howe Island, which was thought to be their only home. There were no land-dwelling mammals there when the rats arrived, and they also vanquished five bird species and 12 other insect species.

A rock-climbing ranger made a curious discovery in 2001 on Ball’s Pyramid: a similar-looking insect. Since then, captive breeding programs have begun at the Melbourne Zoo and elsewhere.

Because of certain differences between the Ball’s Pyramid insects and the Lord Howe Island insect museum specimens, there was some question about whether they were the same species.

“We found what everyone hoped to find, that despite some significant morphological differences, these are indeed the same species,” said Mikheyev, who led the research published in the journal Current Biology.

Officials are planning a program to eradicate the invasive rats on Lord Howe Island, which could allow the stick insects to return.

“I imagine that maybe a decade from now, people will travel to Lord Howe Island and take night walks, hoping to glimpse this insect,” Mikheyev said. “In maybe 20 years, they could become a ubiquitous sight.”

Science & Health

Pence Pledges that US Will Go to Moon, Mars and Beyond

Seated before the grounded space shuttle Discovery, a constellation of Trump administration officials used soaring rhetoric to vow to send Americans back to the moon and then on to Mars.

After voicing celestial aspirations, top officials moved to what National Intelligence Director Dan Coats called “a dark side” to space policy. Coats, Vice President Mike Pence, other top officials and outside space experts said the United States has to counter and perhaps match potential enemies’ ability to target U.S. satellites.

Pence, several cabinet secretaries and White House advisers gathered in the shadow of the shuttle at the Smithsonian Institution’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center to chart a new path in space — government, commercial and military — for the country. It was the first meeting of the National Space Council, revived after it was disbanded in 1993.

But details, such as how much the new ideas will cost, were scant and outside experts said they’ve heard grandiose plans before only to see them fizzle instead of launch.

“We will return American astronauts to the moon, not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but to build the foundation we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond,” Pence said.


Space industry leaders say they and NASA are building the spaceships to get there. And they’re promising that in five years, astronauts could be working around the moon.

David Thompson, president of the space company Orbital ATK, said NASA’s Orion capsule and super-sized Space Launch System rocket should be ready in a couple years, so flying around the moon and even making a lunar orbiting outpost is within reach. But he said a lunar landing would take longer. Blue Origin rocket company chief executive officer Bob Smith said his firm could have a lunar lander program ready within five years.

Past presidents George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and to a lesser extent Barack Obama have proposed spectacular missions to the moon or Mars or both, only to have funding trouble keep them from coming true, said space expert Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation. He wasn’t part of the council meeting.

“Is it going to happen? Who knows? I feel like I’ve been disappointed so many times I refuse to get excited,” said Roger Launius, a longtime space historian.

And Gwynn Shotwell, president of SpaceX, said her company next year will launch astronauts to the International Space Station, the first American launch of people since 2011. After the 2003 space shuttle Columbia broke apart on descent, then-president George W. Bush announced the phasing out of the space shuttle program. Eventually, NASA started building new multibillion dollar ships, the Orion capsule and the SLS mega-rocket.

Pence several times bemoaned a U.S. space program that had fallen behind, asking space executives what they thought.

“America is out-innovating the world in space launch,” Shotwell said, noting that her company had launched 13 rockets this year, more than any other nation.

Weaponizing space

After talking about how “we will blaze new trails into that great frontier” Pence turned the discussion to the dangers of space and how much of the U.S. intelligence system and day-to-day life are dependent on commercial satellites operating safely. And he and others outlined threats to those satellites from potential enemies that could cripple American security and daily life.

Experts worried that satellites could be destroyed and debris in orbit could ruin others.

Pence asked if the U.S. should “weaponize” space.

“The choice whether or not to weaponize space is not one that we can make. We can only decide to match and raise our adversaries who are already weaponizing space,” former NASA chief Michael Griffin said. “That horse is already out of the barn.”

White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said the country needs to “deter and when necessary defeat adversaries’ counter-space efforts. … We may not start it, but we will finish it.”

Arts & Entertainment

British Author Kazuo Ishiguro Wins Nobel Prize in Literature

British author Kazuo Ishiguro has been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature.

The prize committee in Sweden says Ishiguro, through his novels, has “uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”

The committee said the 62-year-old author was born in Nagasaki, Japan.  He moved to Britain when he was five-years-old.

Ishiguro has written numerous novels, but the committee said on Twitter his most celebrated work was The Remains of the Day, a story about a butler at an English country estate.  

The novel was turned into a movie featuring Academy Award winners Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

Swedish academy secretary Sara Danius said Ishiguro is “a writer of great dignity” who has “developed an aesthetic universe all his own.”

“He is a little bit like a mix of Jane Austen, comedy of manners and Franz Kafka.  If you mix this a little, not too much, you get Ishiguro in a nutshell,” Danius said.

As the recipient of the $1.1 million prize, the world’s most prestigious literary award, Ishiguro joins the ranks of Doris Lessing and Ernest Hemingway.

The recipient last year was poet/songwriter Bob Dylan, an influential contributor to popular music and culture for the past half century.

The Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded 110 times between 1901 and 2017, according to NobelPrize.Org.



Economy & business

Study: Student Debt Defaults More Likely at For-Profit Schools

Students who attended for-profit colleges were twice as likely or more to default on their loans than students who attended public schools, according to a federal study published Thursday.

The report by the National Center of Education Statistics looks at students who began their undergraduate education in 2003 and defaulted on at least one loan over the next 12 years. Fifty-two percent of the students who attended for-profit schools defaulted on their loan. That’s compared to 17 percent for those who attended a four-year public institution and 26 percent at community college.

The report also finds that the for-profit students defaulted on their federal student loans in greater numbers than their predecessors eight years before.

The report comes as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rewrites rules that had been put in place by the Obama administration to protect students who said they were defrauded by their for-profit colleges.

The study also found that this group of students is defaulting on their federal student loans in greater numbers than their predecessors eight years before.

Default rate

Of the students who started college in 2003, 27 percent had defaulted on at least one loan after 12 years, the study found. For those who started their undergraduate education in 1995, the default rate was 18 percent. The rate of full repayment was 20 percent in the younger group, compared to 24 in the older group.

Robert Kelchen, a professor of education at Seton Hall University, suggested that the higher rate among the 2003 freshmen might be due to them entering the labor market at the height of the Great Recession.

Default rates were higher for those students who never completed their education, the study said.

“Degree completion is a key component of a student’s ability to repay their loan,” said Joshua Goodman, a professor of public policy at Harvard University. “Simply attending college without completion doesn’t really pay off.”

Among borrowers in the 2003 group, the median amount owed after 12 years was $3,700 for those who earned undergraduate certificates, $11,700 for students getting associate’s degrees and $13,800 for bachelor’s degrees or higher.

Silicon Valley & Technology

Development of Electric-Powered Planes

As electric-powered cars are rapidly gaining popularity, the last frontier in private transportation is also opening up to alternative, eco-friendly power. Thanks to advances in battery and electric motor technology, several manufacturers are experimenting with light planes that are quiet, easy to maintain and cheap to fly. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Silicon Valley & Technology

GM More Than Doubles Self-Driving Car Test Fleet in California

General Motors’s self-driving unit, Cruise Automation, has more than doubled the size of its test fleet of robot cars in California during the past three months, a GM spokesman said on Wednesday.

As the company increases the size of its test fleet, it has also reported more run-ins between its self-driving cars and human-operated vehicles and bicycles, telling California regulators its vehicles were involved in six minor crashes in the state in September.

“All our incidents this year were caused by the other vehicle,” said Rebecca Mark, spokeswoman for GM Cruise.

In the past three months, the Cruise unit has increased the number of vehicles registered for testing on California streets to 100 from the previous 30 to 40, GM spokesman Ray Wert said.

Cruise is testing vehicles in San Francisco as part of its effort to develop software capable of navigating congested and often chaotic urban environments.

Investors are watching GM’s progress closely, and the automaker’s shares have risen 17 percent during the past month as some analysts have said the company could deploy robot taxis within the next year or two.

A U.S. Senate panel approved legislation on Wednesday that would allow automakers to greatly expand testing of self-driving cars. Some safety groups have objected to the proposal, saying it gives too much latitude to automakers.

As Cruise, and rivals, put more self-driving vehicles on the road to gather data to train their artificial intelligence systems, they are more frequently encountering human drivers who are not programmed to obey all traffic laws.

In filings to California regulators, Cruise said the six accidents in the state last month involved other cars and a bicyclist hitting its test cars.

The accidents did not result in injuries or serious damage, according to the GM reports. In total, GM Cruise vehicles have been involved in 13 collisions reported to California regulators in 2017, while Alphabet Inc’s Waymo vehicles have been involved in three crashes.

California state law requires that all crashes involving self-driving vehicles be reported, regardless of severity.

Most of the crashes involved drivers of other vehicles striking the GM cars that were slowing for stop signs, pedestrians or other issues. In one crash, a driver of a Ford Ranger was on his cellphone when he rear-ended a Chevrolet Bolt stopped at a red light.

In another instance, the driver of a Chevrolet Bolt noticed an intoxicated cyclist in San Francisco going the wrong direction toward the Bolt. The human driver stopped the Bolt and the cyclist hit the bumper and fell over. The bicyclist pulled on a sensor attached to the vehicle causing minor damage.

“While we look forward to the day when autonomous vehicles are commonplace, the streets we drive on today are not so simple, and we will continue to learn how humans drive and improve how we share the road together,” GM said in a statement on Wednesday.

Economy & business

Drought-hit and Hungry, Sri Lankans Struggle for a Harvest — or Work

At 52 years old, with two grown children, Newton Gunathileka thought he should be working less by this point. Instead he has never worked so hard — and earned so little.

Gunathileka, from the Sri Lankan village of Periyakulam, in the North Western Puttalam District, is among hundreds of thousands of rural Sri Lankans who have borne the brunt of the worst drought in four decades.

He has not seen any substantial rains on his farm in at least a year and has lost two harvests, resulting in a loss of more than 200,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($1,325) — and growing debts. He has now abandoned his two acres of rice paddy land and spends his time looking, mainly unsuccessfully, for other work in 40 degree Celsius heat.

“There is no work. Everyone, big or small, has lost out to the drought,” he said.

According to data released in September by the United Nations, there are hundreds of thousands of households like Gunathileka’s facing serious food security issues in Sri Lanka.

With rice production for 2017 expected to be the lowest in a decade, “over 300,000 households (around 1.2 million people) are estimated to be food insecure, with many households limiting their food intake and in some cases eating just one meal a day,” the United Nations update said.

The worst affected areas are the North Western, North Central, Northern and South Eastern Provinces that rely heavily on agriculture. The U.N. Office in Colombo said that affected households were in some cases limiting their food intake, which was hampering people’s day-to-day lives.

Eating their seed

Gunathileka, who hails from the North Western Province, said his family was now eating some of the rice that he had put away to use as seed for the next growing season.

“For the next month or two we are okay with rice, but we have been limiting eating meat, eggs and vegetables we buy from outside. The other big problem I have is my children’s higher education. If we can’t get a harvest at least by the end of the year both of them will have to work,” he said.

His daughter is taking a course in secretarial work while the son is getting ready to sit university entrance exams. The family now survives on about Rs 800 ($5) or less a day, and both Gunathileka and his wife earn cash doing whatever work they can find.

The U.N report also said that household debt was rising due to the drought. A World Food Program survey released in August said that debts of surveyed families had risen by 50 percent in the last year.

“Households reported that the amount of money owed in formal loans has not increased, indicating that families are turning to informal lenders for credit,” the WFP survey said.

Gunathileka said that he was thinking of using the deeds to his paddy rice land as collateral and seeking a small loan from local money lenders.

“The banks will not lend because I can’t show any income. [But] if I don’t get to pay back the money lenders, I lose my land,” he said.

Rain and aid

Government officials said they anticipated the island had weathered the worst of the drought, and rains expected in late October would bring more relief.

Recent rains have dropped the overall number of people affected by drought from 2.2 million a month ago to 1.7 million now, said G.L. Senadeera, director general of the government Disaster Management Center.

He said the government planned to distribute relief food packs worth Rs 5000 ($34) to about 200,000 drought-hit families and provide compensation up to Rs 8500 ($56) per acre for harvest losses this year.

The government’s drought relief efforts, which began in August and were accelerated in September, officials say, are expected to cost about Rs 2.5 billion (about $16 million), according to the Treasury department.

The World Food Programme said in its August report that of 81,000 families surveyed in the 10 worst-hit districts, only 22 percent had access to government relief by early August.

For now, Gunathileka and his wife look up to the sky each time they step out looking for work.

“All we see are clear skies. All we want to see are dark clouds over the horizon,” he said.

Economy & business

Archaeologists Put Greek Resort Step Closer to Reality

Greece welcomed Wednesday a decision by senior archaeologists to conditionally permit a major tourism project in Athens, saying it cleared the way for the country to turn the site into one of Europe’s biggest coastal resorts.

The 8-billion-euro ($9.4 billion) project to develop the disused Hellenikon airport site is a key term of Greece’s international bailout and is closely watched by its official creditors and potential investors in the crisis-hit country.

Greek developer Lamda signed a 99-year lease with the state in 2014 for the 620-hectare (1,530-acre) area, once the site of Athen’s airport. But the project has faced delays, partly over a long-running disagreement between developers and those who fear it will damage the environment and cultural heritage.

Protection urged for part of site

After three inconclusive meetings in recent weeks, the Central Archaeological Council, an advisory body, recommended Tuesday that about 30 hectares (74 acres) of the 620-hectare plot under the project be declared an archaeological site.

“The decision is fine,” Deputy Economy Minister in charge of investments, Stergios Pitsiorlas, told Reuters. “The fact that a small area is declared of archaeological interest shields the whole process from future litigation.”

Pitsiorlas said the recommendation meant that archaeologists will have a closer supervision of construction work.

Backed by Chinese and Gulf funds, Lamda submitted its detailed development plan for Hellenikon in July, setting off a licensing process that will wrap up with a decree.

The Council approved the plan Tuesday and designated specific areas where construction should not be allowed. It was not immediately clear how the Council’s recommendation could affect Lamda’s construction plan.

​Impact on development

Lamda said it was waiting to be officially notified over the decision before making any public statement, saying “the importance of the archaeological findings has been included from the beginning in the company’s undertakings.”

It said it should be able to assess the impact of the Council’s decision on its development plan once it has reviewed the resolutions and accompanying diagrams.

The recommendation is not binding, however, the culture ministry always respects the body’s decisions.

Greece on Monday overcame another hurdle to the project by winning an appeal over objections by forestry officials.

Hellenikon has become a major political issue in Greece, which is slowly emerging from a multi-year debt crisis.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, whose leftist party strongly opposed it before coming to power in 2015, is now seen as keen to implement the deal to help boost economic activity and reduce unemployment, the euro zone’s highest.

Referring to the council’s decision, Deputy Foreign Minister Giannis Amanatidis said it was “a complicated process which was resolved in the best possible way.”